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Sixty years in the Life of Herr Fischer

Interview: Director Pepe Danquart. If you don't know who Joschka Fischer is, it's time you learned. Danquart's non-biopic biopic is a good start for the man with 60 years of history to tell.

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Joschka Fischer, the charismatic former German Foreign Minister and Germany’s most beloved politician until his retirement in 2005 has the right biography to fascinate the masses: the story of a displaced Hungarian German, leftist activist, violent rioter and taxi driver, who went on to become leader of the German Green movement and Germany’s second most powerful political leader without even having the Abitur, let alone a university degree. It has been told and retold, littering non-fiction bookshelves with countless publications on and by the subject himself.

It was only a matter of time until the Übervater of the Greens got a proper biopic – although director Pepe Danquart rejects the label. In Joschka und Herr Fischer, Danquart, himself a Green known primarily for his sport documentaries, turns an empathetic camera onto the eventful life of this eminent fellow 68er, as a reflection of and on German and world politics. The result is a fast-paced, upbeat two-and-a half hour piece of contemporary history as embodied by one of its most compelling figures.

There seems to be a lot of mutual sympathy involved in this project. Did you used to be a fan of Fischer’s before you started it?

Not necessarily a fan. As Spontis – I, the Freiburg and the Frankfurt Sponti – we liked each other straightaway. We have a similar basic approach to things.

How did you come up with the idea for this film?

I got to know Fischer in 2005 as I was filming the election campaign. We always stayed in touch, even after his retirement from politics. In 2008 I got the idea to make a film about 60 years of history, with Fischer’s biography as a thread. It wasn’t about a biopic in the classical sense – there are plenty of them out there. When he understood that, he accepted being a part of it.

Fischer is very media-savvy personality. How hard was it to make him forget about the camera and his public image in order to get something more genuine?

I am a documentarist. The truthfulness of the moment is of vital importance to me. During the five years of our collaboration with this project, an enormous trust developed. I am convinced that in the very moment that it all happened, it wasn’t the camera that he was interested in at all. You know that from yourself: suddenly, you see images and videos from your childhood and that really gets to you. This has an emotional effect, even on someone like him. Suddenly, he sees his priest, the pop groups of his youth, all of a sudden this feeling came up and he actually forgot that this was a dialogue with a camera and started to talk to me instead, about an era, about 60 years of history. We never rehearsed anything…

So, when Fischer is standing in Tresor Club with all those screens on which videos from his life are shown, it’s actually the first time he sees these scenes?

Absolutely. He didn’t have a clue at all what was awaiting him. I just told him that we were going to shoot at this location. When he came for the first time, he simply asked me: “Do I have to be standing the entire time?” (laughs) It was a total confrontation.

What is surprising is the honesty with which Fischer describes his own failures, fear and frustration. That is very rare in high politics…

I even believe it’s unique. I couldn’t think of anybody, who has held such an exposed political office and has publicly reflected about these issues. He just says: “At the beginning I had absolutely no clue about anything.” This is an immensely important insight, because if you look at politics today, you get the impression that some are thrown into this game without having the foggiest idea what they’re doing. What is also very rare is that he was someone who had true personal conviction, who wanted to create something with his power – mit Macht etwas machen – and not just preserve it. I, too, find it very surprising that he always carried things out to the ultimate consequence, no matter what the costs were. Deep emotional and intellectual conviction was the basis of his actions, which I only truly realised in the process of this film project.

The film is characterised by a great deal of serenity on Fischer’s side. Retrospection helps introspection?

This film as it is now couldn’t have been made five years ago. I know that it took him at least two years, to redefine himself again as a person. I was at his 60th birthday, which was the first time that I saw him dance again. He suddenly cast off the statesman, an office, which he hadn’t just experienced as a privilege, but as an immense burden, so not just: “I fulfilled my dreams”, but also as a very large, burdensome responsibility he had to take over. To find his inner Sponti again, which was still there, buried deep inside – and in this case, Sponti means a certain lifestyle, a life concept, this freedom to say: “If I don’t like something, I’ll just walk away from it” – cost him a lot of time. So the fact, that there was a bigger distance from his active political career and definitely no ambition to ever take a political office again, did help a lot.

Fischer now works as a lobbyist for gas-guzzler manufacturer BMW and nuclear power producer RWE, amongst others. Why leave out this chapter of his life entirely? Was it too controversial?

Well, because the subtitle of the film is “Eine Zeitreise durch 60 Jahre Geschichte” (A Time Travel through 60 Years of History). It was about the years from 1945 to 2005. I did not want to make a biopic. His biography was not my angle. I wanted to look at an era trough his perspective. Actually at first, I thought of continuing the film after the end of his political career, but I realised that Fischer’s relevance ended in 2005. Fischer himself finishes the film with the ultimate verdict: Einfach genug (“just enough”). I guess you can have different opinions on what came after that, but in my view it is his own business. Let tabloids worry about that.

You included interviews with other personalities to comment on the events, but only people who are on Fischer’s side, ‘companions’ so to speak. Why is that?

To me, it was essential to complete these 60 years with meaningful people who were actually there when things happened. I didn’t want to have the usual suspects. People have asked me why I didn’t interview Gerhard Schröder for instance. That’s totally boring!

The interviewees in the side stories are people I have a personal relationship with, people who I know intensively experienced this era. And I kept telling them: “You shouldn’t just talk about him, but about the time and what you experienced.” The only one who really is a companion and friend of Fischer’s is Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who obviously holds a special position, since the two of them could only be seen as a duo for decades, back then in Frankfurt.

But still, outspoken critics or political opponents don’t get a chance to speak. What do you tell critics who say that this is not balanced enough?

Of course people will always go: “Why didn’t you get Jutta Dittfurth, why didn’t you interview so-and-so?” But what new insights would I have gained from that? Something very, very predictable and not that interesting. I believe this is false objectivism, also. That’s very old school journalism, that mantra: If you show one side, you have to show the opposite side. A clear position already embodies the reflection.

Again: For me, his biography was a thread through history, a thread like no other in this country. I’m not that interested in a discussion about him. I am aware that his opponents will get very upset about this, but I really don’t care. And I am asking you, seriously: Have I left out any controversies? Prove to me that I left out anything!

Did Fischer authorise the film?

No, an authorisation did not occur, as with all my other films. I always tell the people involved: have a glance at it, check whether there’s something you said half a year ago and that you can no longer subscribe to. Fischer didn’t. He only made one critical remark, which I found very useful: His – initially – very ambivalent relationship to the Wende was missing at first, but I added that later.

How did he like it?

He liked it a lot. He was impressed.

Joschka und Herr Fischer opens in Berlin on May 19.